I shouldn’t be here. Not just inside a little snow-covered cottage in Nova Scotia, Canada, where I’m trying to compose these words before a wood stove melts the apple on my computer screen –– I mean anywhere. One year ago I was over 1,000 miles south in my home state of Pennsylvania with a spirit so far lower in latitude. Immersed in pain that was together unbearable and inescapable, I understood something I could never before: suicide.
Such a mindset wasn’t just a one-time fleeting thought, nor something for dramatic effect or attention. It’s not even about giving up. The pressure is instinctual. When you see no way forward and cannot handle where you currently are, it’s merely desperation for true torment to stop.
From how broken and buried I was as a person, I consider my journey and the way I feel now unlikely and surprising. Somehow though one foot, one person, one Airbnb at a time, I ever so-slowly flipped what I knew upside down and in turn made my life feel right side up for the first time I can remember.
Despite having the domain, I delayed writing here for a long time. Not just because I lacked confidence and worried what would happen, but even more so I could never find the exact words to describe five long years in which I struggled every day and didn’t want to wake up the next. I eventually realized supplying my own definition for a single one might do the trick:
despair – | dəˈsper | noun;
The belief that tomorrow will be exactly like today,
when today is dreadful.
I’m not after a job at Merriam Webster (which sounds only more exciting than typing the phone book for Verizon), but believing this false conclusion made for a constantly nauseating – not quite ‘New York’ – state of mind. I truly forgot what it was like to be content or safe in any way. If being in love with something in your life feels like jumping and skipping on air, I may as well have been dragging a Yamaha grand piano behind me the whole time.
believing this false conclusion made for a constantly nauseating – not quite ‘New York’ – state of mind.
Maybe you’ve heard this fable where a frog dropped suddenly into boiling water bounces out immediately. (I picture him holding on for dear life with legs stretched to each corner like my little orange buddy the time we tried a bath.) The same frog however, put into nice cool water and the temperature slowly dialed up, ends up still immersed when the scorching level is reached.
It aims to show how slow forming adversity is hard to react to – it’s more tempting to smoke than touch a hot stove after all. Like plants blossoming in the spring time, sometimes significant formations paradoxically occur so slowly it takes a time-lapse to observe. I think ‘certain lives’ can shape around people this same way. By the time there’s enough accumulated pain and certainty to be sure about a change, you’re inherently and contradictorily in deep.
At least that’s what happened to me. In particular it was a serious relationship slowly emotionally eroding my inside until every day felt as uncomfortable as that boiling water. Even after I recognized this pain, there was another invisible antagonist complicating what I knew…
They say you must play the cards you’re dealt in life. Well, I was handed the royal flush of mental health –– anxiety, depression, OCD, social anxiety, and PTSD. This draw always dictated who I was, what I could do. I’ve since come to believe trauma is like a volume knob for these predispositions. The time I allude to, my late twenties and early 30s, it was cranked up to a deafening level: anxiety rose to panic and depression feel to debilitating.
I’ve since come to believe trauma is like a volume knob for mental health predispositions.
I’d have to say the worst part wasn’t the symptoms themselves, despite being terrible of course. Most paralyzing and sabotaging was how impossible it was to prove where situation ended and brain chemistry began. I was terribly unhappy yet a summary of my life on paper seemed to logically show I should have enough not to be. Instead of believing the situation to be broken, I assumed I was. A flawed brain became the scapegoat.
It was impossible to prove where situation ended and brain chemistry began
Following this line of thought, I tried everything to determine what was wrong with myself. An exhausting combination of therapy and medication.
The talking was something I did weekly most of these years. I believed in the process, and still do, however there was only so much it could do for me where I was; especially since I only ever had the opportunity to go alone.
Psychiatry on the other hand was very disheartening and maddening. Every home has some sort of junk drawer filled with receipts, tapes of all kinds, spare parts, note pads –– mine instead was one full of prescription bottles representing the history of this never-ending experiment. If there was a Jeopardy category for matching brand and generic names of psychotropic drugs I could be the new Ken Jennings. I lament how much time I lost feeling ‘underwater’ (many medications rudimentarily function by slowing down the brain, which works well for seizures but not so much living with passion). Being listened to and finding good genuine help, it wasn’t out there.
All together, I remember these years as torturous. Since my home life and relationship is what hurt the most I did not feel safe anywhere or anytime; and, I genuinely thought absolutely nothing of myself. I realize now years of not listening to your heart unequivocally wears the soul of a person away. I’ll never forget noticing identical resignment in the eyes of horses forced to live inside a stall and eat soybean twice a day.
I’ll never forget noticing identical resignment in the eyes of horses forced to live inside a stall and eat soybean twice a day.
At least three times the pain boiled over, triggered by traumatic and hurtful events, and I’m really not sure how suicide didn’t win. Looking back I can only believe it was love that unconsciously undermined it – not for myself but instead my family, the greatest people I know in the world. Deep down I knew it would steal their lives as much as my own.
What I’m really here to write about is the other side, what I thought I’d never climb to see.
Finally landing on the right amalgamation of medication was an essential first step. No pill was going to magically solve everything, but after a long experiment they merely propped me up ever so slightly so I could put one foot in front of the other.
Then, In turn, one day I somehow amassed enough escape velocity to leave behind the immense gravity of my old life. My stomach still knots if recall the breaking point of crying so hard at night on my back porch it knocked me down to my knees; my inside was like a pressure cooker of pain and it just wanted to burst out at the seams.
One day I somehow amassed enough escape velocity to leave behind the immense gravity of my old life.
The path I took to find what I was looking for certainly didn’t make for the easy way out. A different country, not knowing a single person, over 30 different Airbnbs across the US and Canada, and perhaps the hardest lesson to face – “letting go” in order to make something new possible.
Metaphorical footsteps before me are ultimately what I held onto the whole time, the only reason I knew I wasn’t alone. Be it bestsellers such as Eat Pray Love, Wild, or mere posts such as The Crossroads of Should and Must, and Tim Ferrris’ Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide.
Deep down I always knew what I should do and was waiting for something or someone to give me permission, to tell me it was okay. I was the only one who could.
Back to the “on paper” perspective, in some ways now I have actually less to show. I don’t have a permanent home, and falling in love with Nova Scotia has meant leaving the country and doing the hard effort of immigration with no guarantee I’ll be allowed back. Despite all of this, I realize I’m truly wealthy…
I’m comfortable in my own skin for the first time, ever. And, I believe internal peace is worth more than anything external. This comfort and peace can go anywhere and is never controlled by anything or anyone on the outside.
It’s tempting to wait on happiness. Our “retirement focused” culture in the US trains us to. Here’s to finding joy and peace with ourselves and whatever we have in front of us today, like animals do. I’m learning not to wait on permanent residence, meeting the right person, or any other ‘next big thing.’
It’s tempting to wait on happiness. Our “retirement focused” culture in the US trains us to.
If writing here helps just a single person it was worth it. I know it already has, actually. Finally sharing my own story has helped me more than anything I’ve ever done.
A Song & Book
Music and reading inspire everything in my life. Here's two recommendations for you related to this entry…
"I want to turn the whole thing upside down
I'll find the things they say just can't be found"
The live version with Go On is my favourite.
Cheryl Strayed wrote this under a pen name originally. It helped me realize I was not alone in struggle.